By Stacey Dresner
AMHERST – When Bar Kolodny was 16 years old and attending high school in Chicago, she was assigned the Palestinian side of a debate about Israel’s security wall.
“The way the teacher went about it was actually very clever, but 16-year-old me was not very pleased,” laughed the Jerusalem-born Kolodny, a Jew who lived in Israel until she moved to her mother’s native Chicago at the age of six.
“The subject matter we had to debate was about the security fence/wall/separation barrier that was erected – there are a lot of terms that are used to describe it,” she says. “I had to debate it from the Palestinian side, which was really interesting because I grew up during the second intifada, and I grew up seeing this as something that reduced terrorism by 99 percent.”
Debating the wall in her high school class opened her eyes, she says.
“By doing this I discovered this completely different narrative and at first I totally rejected it – it was like, ‘I can’t do this… my teacher said, ‘Yes you can’… and really encouraged me to see the other side.”
Likewise, during a model UN in high school where the topic was the Iran nuclear deal, Bar was assigned to represent Israel. “There was one girl who said, ‘Israel bombs Palestinians, fact.’ And I was like, ‘There is so much more context.’ I started realizing how complicated this narrative was. I was like, ‘Wow, I really want to make some discussion and dialogue about it.’”
Now Kolodny and fellow Hampshire College students Aya Razzaz and Camille Reynolds have done just that. They are the co-signers of “Piece of Peace,” which is a new recognized student group at Hampshire College.
According to its mission statement, Piece of Peace is a “group dedicated to discussing the issues surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict and creating awareness and a safe environment to educate, grow, and learn as a group. Rather than creating an environment that is discriminatory and biased towards either side we are trying to facilitate discussion that is open to all opinions. We are an inclusive and accepting group that realizes everyone comes from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. We hope to create an attitude of coexistence and work to foster well-rounded opinions. As signers of this group coming from both Arab and Israeli backgrounds, we can facilitate productive dialogue in such a way to create a community of open-mindedness and compassion…”
Kolody, 19 and a second-year student at Hampshire, said that the group grew out of her friendship with Reynolds.
“We just started talking and became friends,” Kolodny said. “We realized we had these different views and come from different backgrounds. All of the discussions we had really informed us both. We really got to know each other and it was like, ‘If we can come together even though we have these opposing views, why can’t others?’ We met Aya and the three of us came up with ‘Piece of Peace.’”
Camille Reynolds, 19, is also a second-year student at Hampshire studying Middle Eastern Studies and Art History. Her background is Lebanese, Palestinian, and American. She says she is currently not practicing any religion.
“After many a conversation with Bar and Aya, we decided there was a need for a group on our campus that was more education-based in regards to Palestine/Israel,” she says.
Aya Razzaz, 19, a Muslim whose hometown is Amman, Jordan, is a Syrian-Palestinian-American. In her second year at Hampshire College, she is studying Dance, Playwriting and Middle Eastern Studies.
“The goal of the group is to provide education and dialogue on the conflict. We also see it as a safe space for people to voice their questions and opinions about the conflict,” Razzaz said. “We are hoping for an open dialogue where people can openly discuss their biases and questions because that is so important to the conversation. We unfortunately live in a space where people feel like they don’t have the right to speak or have conversations about certain things. We want to create an open environment where people are more concerned with learning about the conflict rather than offending each other or being offended. We want to make clear that every experience and view of the conflict is valid and just because we come from different backgrounds doesn’t mean we can’t speak constructively about the conflict.”
Piece of Peace started meeting at the beginning of this school year.
“The initial meeting was an overview…we honestly didn’t expect many people to show up, but about 20 people came,” Kolodny said.
“We have a variety of people showing up from Hampshire and the Five Colleges, but we have not yet opened up our group to the broader community,” Razzaz said. “We are hoping to foster more dialogue in the future that welcomes and complicates all narratives surrounding the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
“The majority of people showing up are from the American Jewish population at Hampshire but there are also a lot of people who are simply interested in international events in the world. Here at Hampshire College our student population is only three percent international, so most of the people who show up are American and Jewish or Christian or with no religious affiliation.”
The meetings have generally been focused on educating people about the conflict.
“We have shown some videos which both act as ‘crash courses’ on the conflict and as a way to evaluate how we think about the conflict,” Razzaz explained. “We have also discussed important events which are significant to understanding the history of Israel and Palestine such as the intifadas.”
Reynolds added that they “have mostly been sending our members to various events around the Five Colleges surrounding Palestine/Israel, like a Combatants for Peace event that happened in October. In the meetings we have had the discussion has been quite excellent and well- rounded.”
Kolodny’s course of study at Hampshire is “studying the relationship between climate change, environmental and human rights, international and nation-state systems, along with cultural/religious/ethnic/racial identities through the lens of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, using non-fiction film and video as a means to engage critical inquiry to current systems.” She is two classes away from getting her Middle Eastern studies certificate.
She has dual American-Israeli citizenship, and says she spent every other summer there while growing up. She was there most recently this past summer, working at two hostels and then a camp in Kiriyat Gan.
She says she chose Hampshire College because she had a lot of different interests and Hampshire’s system of allowing students to design their own personalized concentrations fit her perfectly. Despite the academic fit, Kolodny says she was at first somewhat concerned about some of the things she had heard about Hampshire College with regard to Israel.
In 2009, some pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) students announced erroneously that Hampshire College had voted to divest from Israel.
The college’s board of trustees stated that they did not divest from Israel and in fact continued to hold investments in many companies doing business in Israel and in three Israeli companies.
“There were issues I was really concerned with when I came, because I found out about the stuff about divestment – but they did not divest from Israel…they made that pretty clear,” said Kolodny.
Despite the three group leaders’ personal feelings on the conflict, they maintain that Piece of Peace is first and foremost about understanding each other’s point of view.
“I think what makes our group so unique is that we try not to let our own personal opinions affect the way the group runs or the way we teach about the conflict,” Razzaz said. “So, I personally like to keep my personal opinion on the conflict, personal. But I do believe in trying to see the conflict from the other side’s perspective. A big goal of our group is to humanize everyone on both sides, which requires putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
“I think a group like Piece of Peace is really important because I find that a lot of people choose a side of the conflict without getting an education of the history,” she added. “I think it’s really important to learn about all sides of the conflict and to learn about it in an open environment that inspires people to ask questions instead of shutting them down for things they don’t know.”
CAP: The founders of Piece of Peace at Hampshire College, from left, Bar Kolodny, Aya Razzaz and Camille Reynolds.